Marie walked away with the sensuous grace of a ballet dancer. Her long, jet black hair and honey brown skin stood out against her white blouse. She was a glimmer of sunlight in the dark cavern of the bar. Frank stood mesmerized until he noticed the mama-san watching him. He turned away and walked into the room as George called out to him.
“Hey, Frank, great to see you, buddy. Close the door and join the party.”
George gripped him by the shoulder and pumped his hand.
“Come on, come on, don’t be shy. You know everyone here, don’t you?” George’s southern accent reminded Frank of home.
Frank walked into the sea of Chiefs, shaking hands and exchanging greetings, the chorus of voices friendly and cheerful.
George beamed as he led Frank to a seat at the head table. “It is so good to see you, Frank. How you been? We’ve missed you something fierce. Hey, someone get Frank a San Miguel, will you? Stan, be a good fella and sound the bell. Thank you, shipmate.”
Stan gave the rope dangling from the ceiling two sharp tugs, and the ship’s bell at the bar clanged twice. A few moments later, the door opened and Marie walked in carrying a tray and a beer. The room went silent as Marie walked up to Frank. Their eyes met.
“I thought the beer might be for you.”
He took the beer – their fingers touched.
“Thank you,” he said.
“You are welcome.” She gave him a quick smile, her eyes holding his as she turned and walked out, closing the door behind her.
“Jesus Christ,” a voice murmured. “Marie never serves anyone.”
“Yeah, what’d you do to her, Frank?” another voice piped up.
“I don’t know. I only asked her where to find George.”
“Well, you must have done something. She’s always so damn snooty to everyone else. She’s the bar’s trophy girl, and one arrogant bitch,” sneered Senior Chief Kelly.”
“What’s a trophy girl?”
“You don’t get out much, do you, boy?”
Frank bristled at the remark, but remained silent.
“A trophy girl’s an exceptionally pretty girl hired by the bar to attract customers. Guys come here just to see if they can bed her, but they go home empty-handed. Empty-handed ‘til they get back to the barracks.” The Senior Chief roared with laughter as he looked around at his audience. “She’ll sit all night while Sailors buy her drinks, but the drinks are mostly water with barely enough booze for the smell. She never goes home with anyone. It’s a condition of employment. The mama-san pays her a fortune and lets her keep all the tips. The trophy girl is an investment and the mama-san wants to keep her clean and pure.”
“Yeah,” piped in Chief O’Brien, “And Marie is about as pure as they come.”
Kelly nodded in agreement. “So you’ve never heard of trophy girls? Most bars have them. Didn’t you ever see a drop-dead gorgeous barmaid you wanted to screw, buy her drinks all night, and get nowhere? God knows, I have.”
“No. I’ve never heard of them. But for two short trips back here, I’ve been in ’Nam since we left Hawaii. When I do get back to PI, I don’t spend much time in bars; I like to get out in the provinces.”
“But you hit the bars in the provinces don’t you? Granted, they aren’t the same as the bars here in Olongapo. For one thing, there are no goddamn Flips in our bars. Not many anyway.” Kelly laughed again, his face red with drink. Chief Magalapa, born and raised locally, sat silent, shaking his head as he sipped his San Miguel. The other Chiefs looked uncomfortable, indignant at his outburst, but remained silent. They were used to him.
Frank, his anger palpable, fired back. “No, Senior Chief, I don’t hit the bars in the provinces. The people are too poor to provide entertainment for drunk Sailors. But they do welcome me into their homes. In fact, when I help repair the Catholic orphanage in the Barrio tomorrow, a bunch of Flips will be there working alongside other Sailors too stupid to realize they could be in town getting drunk. Wait, I can read their letters home now: Dear Mom and Dad, I could have helped the Chaplain repair an orphanage in Barrio Baretto today, but I thought it would be better to hang out in a bar and get drunk. Heck, I may never have another chance to travel overseas again, so I’d better make the most of it now! Love, Chucky.”
“Well, ain’t you cute. Looks like I struck a goddamn nerve. What, you don’t like it when I call ‘em Flips? Are you a Flip lover, boy?”
“All right, Kelly, that’s enough.” George glared at the Senior Chief. “How you talk in private is your own business. I expect your conversation to be civil and respectful in the Chief’s Mess, wherever it happens to be at the moment.” He looked around the room, his hands on his hips. George was a big man, crew cut, steely-eyed, imposing. He seemed to grow larger when angry. “That goes for all of you. We’re Chiefs, not goddam thugs.” Nobody said anything, and more than one face reddened. “All right then, meeting adjourned. The smoking lamp is lit. Where’s my damn cigar?”
O’Brien smiled and ran his finger across his temple to keep from laughing. “In your mouth, George.”
“Oh, yeah. Someone ring the bell to let Mama-san know the meeting is over and to send in some beers; my mouth is dry. If Marie brings the beers to Frank instead of me, we’ll have to have a long talk. Who’s President of this Mess anyway?”
The meeting broke up, and the chiefs gathered in their usual groups; a few left for the base. Senior Chief Kelly was red-faced and talking loud to a table of Chiefs who looked annoyed by his presence.
Frank followed George to a table behind the pool table. “George, what’s the deal with Senior Chief Kelly? Is he always a dick?”
“Paul? Yeah, he’s been a pain in the ass ever since he checked into the squadron. He quit flying last year after his helicopter crashed at sea. He was the only one to make it out. Search and Rescue helo picked him up. It was pretty nasty. An engine caught fire and spread to the cockpit before they could do anything. The helo spun out of control and dropped like a rock. The pilot was torched – burnt to a crisp. He was on fire when he turned and looked Paul square in the eyes as they hit the water. It’s the last thing Paul remembers.
“I knew the pilot. Taught him the ropes during his first tour of duty. He was a fine man, a hell of an officer. Family man too. Damn.” He brought the beer to his lips and took a long drink. “Paul’s working with us until he gets transferred somewhere else. I’ve tried to get him transferred early, but Washington tells me there are no billets available.”
Frank shook his head, partly in sympathy with Kelly’s situation, partly at the bureaucracy in the Pentagon. “Why is he such a pain in the ass?”
“Whatever goodwill people felt for him after the crash evaporated soon after he came here. I’ve heard he was different before the crash: easygoing, cheerful, happy. Not now. He’s arrogant and cocky, talks too much, drinks too much, and resents authority. I sympathize with him of course, but you can only do so much for someone in Paul’s state. We’ve got him working in Operations, a job he’s familiar with, but the Ops yeoman wants to kill him. If he doesn’t get orders soon….”
“I’m glad you told me, I wanted to punch him after what he said. Chief Magalapa was sitting next to him. I can’t imagine what he was feeling.”
Frank paused as a barmaid entered the room. “Here comes your beer, George”
George smiled as Amy approached the table. “Well, hello there, young lady. Now, why is a pretty girl like you working in a place like this?”
“Oh, Goody-Goody,” said Amy, a strikingly pretty girl of about eighteen, “you know I only work here so I see you.”
“Well, it’s nice of you to say that, sweetheart. Thanks for the beer.”
“Do you want some food? Mama-san bought adobo and pancit.”
“No, I have to get home soon. I have a busy day tomorrow.”
“Ok. Bye-bye, Goody-Goody.’
George looked thoughtful as he puffed the cigar in his mouth. “Nice girl, Amy. I wonder why she’s working in a place like this.”
Frank watched as Amy walked from table to table serving the remaining beers and collecting empties.
“Probably comes from a dirt-poor family waiting for her paychecks. I doubt she keeps much for herself. She’s probably hoping some Sailor will come in, sweep her off her feet, marry her, and take her back to the states. I hope she gets her wish.”
“So do I, Frank, so do I,” George said. “In a way, though, I feel sorry for them; the barmaids, I mean.”
“They put all their hope into landing a Sailor or Marine for a husband and moving to the states where they think everyone is rich.”
“They do, George. I see it every time I deploy here. Amy can’t be more than eighteen. As pretty as she is, she’ll be married and have a baby by the time she’s twenty, if not sooner. She’s in for a rude awakening when she finds out her Sailor husband is on the low end of the social scale, not to mention the pay scale.”
George nodded. “That’s right. Things are so cheap here – this beer cost me less than a dime – a young Sailor is comparatively rich. There’s also the lack of other Filipinos to socialize with back in the states, unless her husband is lucky enough to land a set of orders to Norfolk or San Diego where there are large numbers of Filipinos.”
“Don’t Sailors and their girlfriends have to have counseling before they get married? Aren’t they told what to expect: culture shock, discrimination, disrespect, things like that? Isn’t the whole interview and counseling process designed to test their commitment?”
George had counseled a lot of young Sailors who wished to marry Filipinas. He recognized the intent of the interview process and tried to prepare them for it. Most resented the requirement, and the implication that the girl was in it for a free ride to the states.
He could admit, though, that most of the marriages succeeded despite the counseling and discouragement. He had seen a few end in divorce, but most seemed quite happy. He understood the love leading to marriage between a man and a woman back home was different than that between a Sailor and a Filipino barmaid. Few American girls saw their fiancé as a hero, rescuing them from a life of poverty and hopelessness.
The Filipina saw America the way immigrants had when they looked across the ocean and saw a land of hope and plenty. The American Dream held a strong attraction for people living in relative poverty who saw no way out of their static lives. Most would have found a restless happiness marrying a local boy who would fish for a living, or work in a shipyard, or perform some other labor. But few saw little reason to hope that their lives would move beyond a hand to mouth existence. They wanted more. They wanted what Europeans wanted when wave after wave left their famine-stricken or socially stratified native countries for the Promised Land of America. They viewed the Sailor or Marine, or the Airman or occasional Soldier, not only as a ticket to the fulfillment of their dreams, but as a husband who would provide for them and the children they would someday give him. They fell in love with him not only for what he could do for them, but for who he was. Love has many components, but the most basic is the love that springs from the heart, not the love that grows in the mind. Most Filipinas came from a situation conducive to both components, but the love of the heart carried through what the love of the head began.
“The interview process is designed to discourage marriage, Frank, and for good reason. It’s easy for a naïve young kid fresh out of boot camp and overseas for the first time to become infatuated with the first girl to make eyes at him. Most have never had a serious girlfriend and think they’re in love after the girl takes him home a few times and dotes on him. Haven’t you counseled any of the Sailors in your squadron?
“No. They’re sent to see the command master chief. He refers them to the chaplain if needed.”
“When you do, be careful. It’s hard to convince a guy he’s wrong about a girl when he insists they love each other and want to get married. A few say they are doing the honorable thing by marrying. Maybe, but that isn’t always an accident.
“I’m not saying that every relationship is a one-sided attempt to catch a ride to America, but enough are to make me cynical. You can often tell if the girl is sincere during an interview. I’ve caused a few Sailors to reconsider, but most go through with their plans.”
“Yes. I know of a few guys in the squadron contemplating marriage after we return to Hawaii. It happens on every deployment.”
“It does indeed.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes, lost in thought and half-watching a game of pool. After a cry of triumph by the winning player, George spoke again, obviously preoccupied by the earlier conversation.
“You know, Frank. Filipinos dream just like everybody else. They dream of a better life for their kids. They know their daughters have dreams too, otherwise they wouldn’t let them work as barmaids hustling Sailors for drinks. They know what’s at stake and what’s to be gained.”
“I know they do, George. Just like any other people wishing the best for their kids.”
“I hope Amy does okay. I hope her Sailor is good to her.” He chuckled. “If she’s lucky, her Sailor will work for me.”
“That would scare any Sailor straight, George,” Frank said.
“That it would, Frank.” George stood and stretched. “I’m heading back to the base. What time do you want to meet tomorrow?”
Frank pushed back in his chair and stood. “Why don’t we meet at Public Works at, say, nine-thirty? You can help us load supplies for the orphanage. The sisters expect us by eleven.”
“All right. See you then.”
Frank winked at George as the big man stood. “Bye-bye, Goody-Goody.”
George laughed and shook Frank’s hand. “You’re a punk Frank. See you in the morning.”
George headed for the door but stopped before he reached it. He walked back and took Frank’s hand, gripping it tight and holding him by the shoulder.
“I know it was bad, Frank. I’m glad you made it out of ‘Nam alive, buddy.”